15 November 2009

The end of the world - of death

Week 33 - Season of the Year B
Mark 13:24-32

Often when we are presented with a passage like the Gospel that we have just read, we are left scratching our heads and wondering what on earth (or heaven) is going on. Of course there is a fascination in our world (like theirs) about the end of the world. Movies like 2012 - released this week - or other Hollywood blockbusters like Knowing, Independence Day, the Day After Tomorrow all attest to our interest and fascination with the subject, as do bookshelves full of prophecies from Nostradamus or the Mayan empire - or indeed of course from our own Scriptures.

So yes, we have a range of passages and whole books in the Bible that are samples of what we call 'Apocalyptic'. The first reading today was from the Prophet Daniel, and the final book in the Bible is the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse. And they are notoriously difficult to interpret. Especially if we imagine that they are to be taken literally, or that they are meant to be read as precise predictions of how the world will end. Which they are not.

First the title gives us a hint - it is called apocalyptic, which comes from a Greek word 'apokalypso' meaning 'disclosure', 'unveiling' or 'revelation'. Sometimes this refers to an unveiling of the future, but usually it means a revelation about what is happening all around us - which is the case in today's Gospel. Secondly, this kind of literature is usually written during times of persecution. So Daniel comes from the period of the Jewish exile in Babylon, when the people were suffering great persecution; similarly the book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century, during a period of deep persecution of the Christian Church by the Roman Empire.

Turning to the Gospel itself, this chapter 13 begins with Jesus and his disciples sitting in the temple forecourt. Now, especially for country bumpkins like this lot, coming from Galilee the Temple was an amazingly impressive building. As a country kid myself, I remember vividly the first time that I went overseas. As a good Catholic boy, my first stop was Rome and we went straight by train from the plane to St Peter's. Man, that place is just amazing. The building is simply massive and so beautiful. It is 220m long and seats 60,000 people. But the temple of King Herod was just as impressive - or even more so. The whole complex was nearly half a kilometre long - 485m along the Western wall. At the south-eastern corner the wall is 130m about the valley - that's like a 40-story building. And it was all decked out in white limestone, marble and stacks of gold. So it would take your breath away! And Archeologists have discovered that some of the foundation stones would have weighed around 4000 tonnes - so it was certainly enough to blow away these country kids. And Jesus simply says that not one of these massive and beautiful stones will be left standing on another. And to declare that he really didn't even need to be a great prophet. He knew how central the Temple was to the whole scheme of things - how it lay not just at the centre of Jewish religious life but also their whole cultural, political and national identity. He also knew how much the tension was building between the Jewish zealots who were pushing for a national uprising and the Roman Empire. This all came to a head in the last 60s, leading to the complete destruction of the Temple in 70CE.

So Jesus is alluding to this - and to some extent he is also alluding to the eventual end of the world. But he talks about all of this coming about during the current generation - that the disciples would all witness it. If we take all this literally, we are left wondering if Jesus got the details all wrong. So what was he talking about when he mentions the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling?
First we need to remember the centrality of these 'heavenly bodies' in everyday life. Now, if I want to know what the time is, I just look at my watch. If I am wondering around and want to know where I am I pull out my mobile phone and turn on the GPS. The same in my car. If it is getting a bit dark, I flick the switch and turn on the lights. In those days the sun and moon provided their main sources of light. You used them to know what the time was. You used them and the stars to navigate and to know what season it was and what the weather was going to be like. (Hence the example of the fig tree.) So the sun and moon and stars represented what the whole world was like. The symbolised the existing structure of the world. So when Jesus says that all of that is changing - all of that is coming to an end in this generation - he is talking about events that are much closer at hand. Remember all this happens in Jerusalem during what we now call 'Holy Week'. The great events of Jesus' death and resurrection are only a day or two away. Jesus wants his disciples to know that what is about to happen will not just effect him - but it will change their whole world (represented by the sun, moon and stars). Why will everything change? Because until that time the whole world has revolved around death. Death (like taxes) is the one thing that every empire has always held over its citizens and subjects. Fear of death has remained a constant across human history. In one way we can understand that all of our sin and dysfunction is linked to this fear of death and our feeble attempts to overcome it - whether that is by pursuing health, wealth, beauty, power, sex or simply distracting ourselves with new toys or experiences. But all of that world came to end - or began to end - the moment that Jesus took all of our sin and dysfunction on-board when he stretched out his arms on that Roman cross.

The old world did in fact end on that glorious Easter Sunday morning. All of our fears and failures were caught up and redeemed by the work of God in the person of Jesus. The world that the disciples knew did end that day.

But the end was also a beginning. Because realities are of little use unless we know about them. Unless we live in their truth. So while death no longer has a hold over us, we need - as a Christian people - to live in this truth. And we need to take our place in proclaiming and living as an Easter people.

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Recorded at St Michael's Nowra, 9.30am (12'51")